This is Part II of a two-part series. Read Part I.
We are reading the Bible like architects by using what we know to find what we don’t know. In the last article, we looked at the core of Jas 2:14-26 and saw that “justify” only means “to declare righteous.” God calls someone righteous when he believes and people call someone righteous when they see his good works. For example, Abraham was justified by and before God by faith and he was justified by and before men by works.
Here are nine easy things we noticed about Jas 2:21-25 in Part I:
1. James agrees with the rest of the Bible
2. The Bible clearly teaches the doctrine of sola fide
3. James is writing to believers
4. Justified means ‘to call righteous’
5. There is more than one justification
6. God isn’t the only one who can call someone ‘righteous’
7. God called Abraham ‘righteous’ because of his faith
8. Men called Abraham ‘righteous’ because of his works
9. Men also called Rahab ‘righteous’
Today, let’s see how this easy stuff develops the context that it occurs in.
The point of James’ letter is that “every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (Jas 1:19b). In cultivating the theme to “be swift to hear,” James writes, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Jas 1:22) then develops the “doer not hearer only” theme all the way through the passage we’re looking at.
Be doers, not just hearers. That’s easy to understand (though, admittedly, it can be hard to do). Abraham is a great example of both. He was a hearer only for a long time before eventually becoming a doer. In Genesis 15, Moses wrote that Abraham had believed God and was justified. Abraham believed, so he is a hearer, but is he a doer? In Gen 16, Abraham has an affair with Hagar, in Gen 17, he laughs at God and in Gen 20, he hands his wife over to Abimelech. Clearly, Abraham is a hearer only. He had been justified sola fide before God, but other people don’t have much good to say about him as of yet. That is, until he obeys God and passes the test by offering Isaac on the altar in Gen 22. Finally, Abraham does something that we can respect!
Side note: Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is even worse. Not only does he do worse things than what Abraham does, but he doesn’t do any good things that we can point to and say, “good job, Lot.” But, nonetheless, he was justified before God. We know this because the Bible calls him, “righteous Lot” (2 Peter 2:7). Lot certainly isn’t called righteous because of any deeds he had done, but because he was believer, albeit not a doer.
Everything that James says about Abraham and Rahab jives with his command to be doers and not hearers only. It’s easy! So, let’s use this easy stuff and look at some stuff that’s a bit more difficult:
If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? (James 2:15-16 NKJV)
Saying, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled” is the hearer thing to do. It’s what Abraham would have done for at least 6 chapters of Genesis. If Abraham could be saved and pull this kind of stunt (and worse), probably any of us could.
The “hearer only” is pretty useless. His ears function, but they aren’t working with the rest of his body. They are much like a “believer only’s” brain. Yes, he can think… but if he thinks of a good idea and never actually does it, then how useful are his thoughts? About as useful as a pogo-stick in quicksand, an ejection seat in a helicopter, the letters ‘ay’ in the word “okay,” the second ‘shift’ key on a keyboard, a white crayon, or rubber lips on a woodpecker – useless!
No wonder James says, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Jas 2:17 NKJV) and “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (Jas 2:26 NKJV). The context is easy; be a doer not just a hearer. So many people twist up this one verse to make it difficult and use it to make every other occurrence of the word, “believe,” difficult, too. If we simply start with easy Scriptures and let difficult Scriptures build upon them, then lots of tough texts start to make sense.
We started this article with nine easy things. Let me tack on another five:
10. Abraham was just a hearer but then became a doer
11. James wants us to be doers, not just hearers
12. Hearing alone doesn’t feed people
13. Faith alone doesn’t feed people, either
14. Faith alone doesn’t help others at all
There are more details in James that we could pull valuable lessons from, but this should suffice for now. Feel free to explore further, but in this passage, as with all others:
Use what you know to find what you don’t know.